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Is pleasure all that matters?

This week I convened a philosophy seminar in Oxford with Kasia de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer. Singer is probably the world’s most famous living philosopher, well known for his pioneering work on the ethics of our treatment of non-human animals, on global poverty, and on many other issues. Less well known, perhaps, is the fact that Singer has recently changed his mind on the question of what really matters.

I’m talking here about what matters for individual beings – what makes their lives good or bad for them. For many years Singer took the view that what makes the lives of persons, like you and me, good for us is the satisfaction of certain preferences or desires. This enabled him to argue, for example, that there is something especially bad about killing a person, because – unlike non-persons – they would have had a preference to go on living, and by killing them one is making sure that that preference remains unfulfilled. What about non-persons, and in particular most non-human animals? Here Singer was readier to accept the view long known as hedonism: all that matters to such beings is pleasure or pain. On this view, then, there’d be nothing wrong with painlessly killing a mouse, say, as long as one replaced that mouse with one exactly like it.

In recent years, however, Singer has been influenced by the work of Henry Sidgwick, a Cambridge philosopher who died in 1900, and wrote what a later Cambridge professor – C.D. Broad – described as the best book ever on moral philosophy, The Methods of Ethics. In fact, Singer was so impressed by Sidgwick on re-reading him that he himself wrote an excellent book about Sidgwick with Kasia. It was called The Point of View of the Universe and published last year by OUP.

Hedonism is not new: as a philosophical view it dates back to the origins of philosophy itself, two-and-a-half millennia ago. And it still seems plausible to many of us – how could anything matter to us except in so far as we enjoy it, or it causes us pain? But hedonism has faced many objections over the centuries.

Portrait of Henry Sidgwick, by Elliott & Fry. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

One important one revolves around the idea of ‘evil pleasures’. A hedonist has to say that the pleasures of sadistic killing are good for the killer, and this might seem unacceptable. Hedonists, however, might say that we need to keep a sharp distinction between our theory of what’s good or bad for people, and our moral theory. One can condemn sadists morally, even if we have to accept that they do get something good for themselves out of what they do.

Another old objection, found in the work of Plato, is that things matter to us independently of pleasure and pain. In recent years, this objection has been stated using the example of the ‘experience machine’ (see especially Robert Nozick’s description in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia). Here is one version of that objection. Consider first the life of an accomplished composer, who becomes very famous for her innovative work. She has a family and friends who love her, and lives a long and healthy life. Let’s say we put the value of her life at level V. Now imagine that some brilliant but crazy neuroscientist has somehow downloaded what is going on in this woman’s brain to a computer program. He then kidnaps a baby, and ‘plays back’ these experiences to the baby, in such a way that ‘from the inside’ everything appears just the same as it did to the composer. A hedonist has to accept that the life of this individual is also of value V. But, we might think, really accomplishing something, or having real friendships, make an individual’s life better for her in themselves, independently of the pleasure or enjoyment that accompany them.

Sidgwick himself discussed these kinds of case, and tried to explain how hedonists can weaken their persuasive force in various ways, by pointing out, for example, that valuing things other than pleasure is often rational in real life. So a tennis player who just gets into her game and tries to win, for example, will enjoy her game more than a player who is constantly trying to maximize her own pleasure.

Sidgwick’s view on pleasure was one of the topics of our seminar, as was the insight into hedonism provided by recent neuroscience. It appears, for example, that the same ‘brain circuits’ are used for both pleasure and pain, which validates to some extent the hedonist’s decision to understand the value of life in terms of a balance between these two states. (The leading neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach also took part in our discussion. His book Pleasures of the Brain (OUP), co-edited with Kent Berridge, another leader in the field, makes for fascinating and intriguing reading.)

I do disagree a little with some of Peter and Kasia’s interpretations of Sidgwick. But to be honest I think Sidgwick’s text is somewhat indeterminate. He says different things in different places about pleasure and hedonism, and all interpreters have to force certain bits of the jigaw into place. But for me the main point of doing history of philosophy is that it enables us to grasp certain new philosophical options. So what’s important is not so much whether I’ve got Sidgwick right or not, but whether the views I’m ascribing to him are right in themselves. In my opinion, Sidgwick was indeed correct about many of the major issues in ethics, and if you haven’t already done so then I encourage you to follow in the footsteps of Peter Singer and read Sidgwick for yourself.

Featured image credit: “The path”. CCO Public Domain via Pixabay.

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